Very soon the Road to WrestleMania will begin, kicking off—as it does every year—with the Royal Rumble match. And while WWE likes to talk up the almost-always fun hour-long battle royal, the fact is, in the grand scheme of things, the event isn’t really the career making match that it is often portrayed to be. The whole month of January is spent talking it up, and saying how the winner will etch his name in the history books; how x-number of winners went on to win a WrestleMania championship after winning the match, etc etc etc.
And while it’s true that a great number of Rumble champions went on to win at WrestleMania, it’s not always true that the event has been the main-event propelling vehicle it is promoted as.
Let’s take a look at the list of past winners, and as you do, you’ll see how easy it is to compartmentalize it into groups: There are the “moment in time” winners, who won and rode their momentum to a title run that lasted a few months before they slipped back to the midcard. There are the “main-eventers already” winners, who won as part of a larger story that simply peaked at WrestleMania. Such stories didn’t need Mania and could have been told just as well without the Rumble ever getting involved. There are the “insta-dud” winners whose victories were so terrible it was almost like they were vindictively sent through the curtain to bomb with the audience. And then there are those very few, very rare and very special “a star is born” winners, who used the Rumble to catapult themselves to the top of the card, cement themselves there at WrestleMania and enjoy a happy career on the top of wrestling’s mountain.
THE “FIRST FIVE” WINNERS
To be fair, you really have to start a look at the Rumble’s importance with the 1993 iteration; that was the year the match was first used to crown the #1 Contender for the Title at WrestleMania. Before that, the event was just a glorified exhibition match. But, just for completion’s sake…
JIM DUGGAN won the inaugural Royal Rumble event (die hard fans know One Man Gang actually won an untelevised edition a few months previously, but history does not acknowledge it, so neither will we), which was designed to be a big new years special event for the USA Network. As the story goes, Vince and Pat Patterson met with the head of the network to discuss something they could do on the network in the new year (1988). Vince pitched several ideas that were met with indifference when, frustrated, he shouted “fine, Pat, you tell him your idea.” Vince initially thought the Rumble was a silly concept that wouldn’t work but Patterson laid it out and the network fell in love with it. As for why Jim Duggan of all people was selected to be the winner, you need to remember a couple things: Number one, even though Duggan never managed to transcend his era the way guys like Hogan and Savage did, he was still a very popular superstar in his day. Number two, the Rumble was never expected to blossom into arguably the second biggest match of the year (behind the Mania main event itself). Duggan won what was essentially thought, by the skeptical McMahon, to be a one-off match.
BIG JOHN STUDD won the first Rumble to be aired on PPV. By this time the company was looking to expand in the PPV market, having already established WrestleMania, Survivor Series and SummerSlam in previous years. Bringing the Rumble back was more about needing a big concept to build a show around than it was Vince suddenly seeing the potential in the match. Still, the first Rumble was a big ratings success so the hope was it would translate to PPV buys. It didn’t, however. It only netted about a third of the buys that the other PPV shows had averaged up to that point (165k vs 400k) and far less than what the upcoming WrestleMania V would bring in (750k). Fans were lukewarm toward it as well; maybe that was because the match the show was built around was not hyped very much, and its winner, Big John Studd, was never positioned as a major attraction.
HULK HOGAN winning the third Rumble makes sense considering the disappointment of the second. A bigger name was needed to help carry the match and solidify the event as a show to buy every year. Though there still was no special gimmick or stipulation attached, the hype was bigger due to the promise of bigger stars in the mix. This was also the first rumble to really play up the “x meets y” staredown moment that always causes fans to erupt in glee. When Hogan and Ultimate Warrior came face to face the crowd went bananas, setting the stage for their upcoming WrestleMania VI main-event.
HULK HOGAN WON AGAIN, BECAUSE OF COURSE HE DID, and it was probably due to politicking more than anything else. This was the last Rumble with nothing on the line and after the buyrate to the previous edition was strong (at least compared to the second Rumble) Hogan lobbied to win to give him momentum heading into a title match at WrestleMania VII. That title match was originally going to be an LA Coliseum rematch against Ultimate Warrior but ended up being an LA Sports Arena match against Sgt. Slaughter. Plans change a lot in pro wrestling, but “Hogan wins” was one of the surest bets there ever was.
RIC FLAIR won what is considered by many the best Royal Rumble match in history. The WWF Championship was on the line, multiple storylines were thrown into the mix, there were great moments of surprise and drama peppered throughout, all leading to a memorable and exciting finish. If it wasn’t the best (and 2001 can make a pretty strong argument) it was certainly the most exciting match of the year and one of the best of its generation. After five years, the event had managed to settle into the collective consciousness of WWF fans, and starting in 1993, the match would become the permanent starting point to the Road to WrestleMania.
THE “MOMENT IN TIME” WINNERS
These are the guys who won despite their being no intention of them carrying the company for its long-term future (with the exception of Austin’s first win which had unique circumstances, and McMahon’s win, which was just a gag more than anything).
YOKOZUNA WAS THE RIGHT GUY TO HELP CARRY THE COMPANY AT THE TIME. He was a giant, yet was agile in the ring. He was also a fresh face (having made his PPV debut a couple months earlier at Survivor Series) in a time when the company was trying to transition to a new generation of superstars. Bret Hart was the champion, having been plucked out of the midcard upon Ric Flair’s return to WCW, but Hart was never the guy Vince wanted to carry his company. Yokozuna was supposed to be a monster heel champ who could carry the belt until the rightful next face of the company came along. Winning the Rumble in 1993, which earned him a title shot against Hart at WrestleMania IX, was always to be a piece of a larger puzzle. The fact that he held the belt (not counting Hogan’s brief and pointless run between Mania IX and King of the Ring) until the following Mania is due more to Lex Luger bombing as that next rightful face than anything.
STEVE AUSTIN IS THE ONLY THREE-TIME RUMBLE WINNER, but his first was always more about extenuating WWF circumstances than it was his own rising star. He won the 1997 Rumble but did not main-event WrestleMania 13. Instead his win was disqualified due to cheating (he had been eliminated but snuck back in before the refs noticed). He did compete in a title match the next month and would eventually carry the title (and the company) but his first win was more a testament to the chaos of the WrestleMania 13 season, where none of Vince’s plans managed to stay set in stone until literally a couple weeks before the big show.
VINCE McMAHON WON THE ROYAL RUMBLE. He won, I suspect only because the only other reasonable winner would have been Steve Austin, which would have given him three wins in a row. Since Austin was the presumed and logical winner, so Vince pulled out his SO OF COURSE card and threw everyone for a swerve. Giving himself the victory was just a means to an end; the company was in the process of switching to full-price PPVs every month and needed to condition fans to paying $30 every four weeks. Vince would put his title shot on the line against Austin at the February PPV. You’d be hard-pressed to find a hotter ticket than Steve Austin vs Vince McMahon…in a steel cage…for the #1 Contendership.
CHRIS BENOIT’S VICTORY IN 2004 was the ultimate in “moment in time” booking. There was no way the small, chipped-toothed, technical wrestler with limited mic skills was going to carry the company going forward. His win, alongside Eddie Guerrero’s, was more about signing off of WrestleMania 20 with an iconic shot of two career wrestlers finally reaching the summit. Benoit was given the Rumble in order to tell a short story with no long-term ramifications. He would drop the title in August; Guerrero would drop his before that. But both of them were allowed to have that hug, mid-ring, at Madison Square Garden, while confetti fell around them. It was a moment, but it was never going to be more than that.
REY MYSTERIO’S 2006 WIN didn’t have to be a shameless bit of exploitation, but that’s how it ended up. Had Mysterio been pushed to the main-event on Smackdown, and treated like a legitimate competitor instead of a diminutive fluke, the fact that this win was designed to capitalize on Eddie Guerrero’s tragic death would have been a minor footnote in history. Instead, Mysterio won the Rumble in the mid-card of the show, won the World title in the mid-card of WrestleMania, lost non-title matches constantly and dropped the belt to the first serious contender. His Rumble win was what it was: a shameless bit of exploitation designed to play off of fans love of Eddie.
THE “MAIN-EVENTERS ALREADY” WINNERS
To be fair, just because you’re a main-eventer already doesn’t mean your Royal Rumble win was a bad idea. In many of these cases, the right man won the match because he was either the hottest thing going or the most obvious guy available to main-event WrestleMania. In a few of the cases, looking back on how they were used after their win, it’s clear that their Rumble victory did nothing either for them or for the prestige of the match.
BRET HART was not just a main-eventer when he won the 1994 Rumble, he was already a WrestleMania main-eventer. His win was shared with Lex Luger, but it was Hart that was the more obvious choice to lead the post-Hogan WWF. The same could be said of THE ROCK, who won the match in 2000. Steve Austin was out with a neck injury, and was expected to be gone until the end of 2000. The Rock was the hottest act in the company, whose star was shining as brightly as Austin’s before he left. Giving Rock the Rumble and the Mania main-event (a year after he defended the title in the big show) against Triple H (the hottest heel in the business) was the most obvious call, even if they took very “crash booking” way to get there (shoe-horning in two other guys).
STEVE AUSTIN was the most established main-eventer to win the Rumble since Hulk Hogan, back when the match was just an exhibition. He had already carried the world title, and the company for years, and had main-evented WrestleMania two previous times (not to mention won the Rumble two previous times too), but in 2001, when coming off an injury and looking to reestablish himself as the top guy, there was no better choice to win the match. It wasn’t a fresh face launching himself to main-event status, but it wasn’t a wasted win either.
TRIPLE H’S VICTORY IN 2002 FELT MORE LIKE AN OBLIGATION THAN ANYTHING. It was the most “my turn next” win in Rumble history to that point. His win will, due to the man in question, always be treated in history like a bigger deal than it was. At the time, it was maybe the third or fourth most important thing in wrestling at the time. Hogan vs Rock overshadowed everything else, the fall-out from the InVasion angle and the subsequent failure of Vince to capitalize on WCW’s demise was another bigger talking point than Triple H. So too was the apparent lack of creative direction for Steve Austin. Looking back on that whole year between Mania 17 and 18, it’s easy to theorize a hundred different scenarios for how to do the booking differently (and probably 90 of those scenarios would have been better than what Vince did), and of those hundred, probably no more than ten of them feature Triple H winning the Royal Rumble that year and trying to carry the company as a top babyface.
UNDERTAKER’S 2007 WIN, in contrast to Triple H in 2002, felt more like a well-earned feather in the veteran’s cap. Having been a loyal side player (who occasionally, and reliably, would be called to pinch-hit in the main-event), Undertaker was finally needed to carry the Smackdown brand in the early Brand Split days. Lesnar had been the first guy Smackdown was built around, but he didn’t last long. John Cena quickly became a superstar, but was then sent over to Raw. Batista replaced him but he needed a dance partner to give the fans a reason to tune in weekly. Undertaker provided that, and even though he had been a top level player for fifteen years to that point, he was given the 2007 Rumble (probably the third best match in the series) as a way to show fans that he was moving into the center of the spotlight.
JOHN CENA BASICALLY DID IN 2008 WHAT STEVE AUSTIN DID IN 2001, only with a much quicker recovery time (naturally, since Cena is a freak). Despite his 2006 injury being bad enough to keep him on the shelf until SummerSlam, Cena rehabbed in half the time and was cleared for action in time for WrestleMania 24. His surprise appearance at the 2008 Rumble (another very good one) blew the roof off Madison Square Garden and made it clear that the guy who had been main-eventing shows for three years already, was still the face that ran the place.
RANDY ORTON IS ONE OF ONLY A HANDFUL OF HEELS TO WIN THE RUMBLE. It really defies the core principal of the match, which is supposed to showcase the endurance of a strong-willed babyface, who is questing for the top prize in the land (usually held by an evil villain). Having a heel win the Rumble and then feuding with a babyface champion never felt more wrong than it did in 2009. It didn’t help that Triple H was the champ and fans never bought into him as a great babyface. Having Orton stand tall as the Rumble winner (thanks to help from his stable of Ted DiBiase Jr. and Cody Rhodes) kicked off the Road to WrestleMania in an awkward way and ended most fans’ favorite match of the year on a sour note.
EDGE TRIED TO DUPLICATE JOHN CENA’S 2008 COMEBACK WIN, but like Triple H, the Rated-R Superstar always worked better as a heel than a babyface. His return and win was a surprise, but not to the magnitude of Cena’s. It marked the fourth year in a row that an established main-eventer won the Rumble, and the second year in a row where the win felt like it wasted the purpose of the match (Orton vs Triple H was the wrong story to tell; Edge vs Jericho wasn’t even in the top two matches on the Mania card). It was also the third in a row where the Rumble winner ended up losing his title match.
JOHN CENA’S 2013 WIN WAS ONE OF THE MOST PREDICTABLE IN HISTORY, and not in a good way. Most would have guessed Austin winning in 98, or Rock in 2000 but in those cases fans were excited to see those guys main-event WrestleMania. John Cena vs The Rock II was not a match fans were itching to see again—at least not without CM Punk also getting into the mix—but everyone saw it coming. Sure enough, despite fans hungering for something fresh, and to see the Rumble be the catalyst for that, Vince went with what he wanted and gave us a bummer finish featuring a second John Cena win, en route to a fifth John Cena WrestleMania main-event in a rematch that underwhelmed the first time around.
BATISTA’S SECOND RUMBLE WIN WAS MORE OF THE SAME FROM 2013: Fans wanted one thing (Daniel Bryan), Vince wanted something else. So even though no one was really asking for Batista to come back, and certainly not to main-event WrestleMania, that’s what happened, and fans rebelled. Batista got one of the worst reactions a Rumble winner ever received (not just boos like a heel gets, but the kind of boos an angry fan shouts when he’s giving one last bit of defiance before turning away from the program), and even though he would end up rehabbing his image before leaving again, his 2014 Rumble win will go down as one of the most misguided in history.
THE “INSTA-DUD” WINNERS
LEX LUGER IS NOT OFTEN REMEMBERED AS THE 1994 WINNER, but he should be as he shared the honor with Bret Hart. Just because Bret went on to actually main-event WrestleMania X, while Luger wrestled for the title in the mid-card doesn’t change the fact that the Rumble was (co)won by “The All American.” His win was a dud, however, and it represented the beginning of the end of Vince’s quest to turn him into the next Hulk Hogan. Fans never latched onto him the way they did Hart and after WrestleMania X, Luger was out of the main-event for good.
SHAWN MICHAELS IS ONE OF ONLY THREE “BACK TO BACK” RUMBLE WINNERS, but his first victory in 1995 went over like a led balloon. It didn’t help that WrestleMania XI was one of the very worst in history, in the middle of the worst period in the company’s history. Michaels was playing a cocky heel but lacked the believably as a main-event player that he’d find just a year later. Fans are always more willing to accept a babyface challenger/first-time main-eventer than they are a heel, probably because you naturally root for babyfaces. Either way his first Rumble victory was a dud.
ALBERTO DEL RIO WON THE 2011 RUMBLE, the first in a long list of accolades the talented superstar racked up in his five year WWE career. He was WWE Champion, World Heavyweight Champion, competed in multiple WrestleMania title matches as both a face and a heel, United States champion, Money in the Bank winner and his Rumble win was the “biggest” ever (it was a whopping fourty man event, as opposed to the usual thirty). But he never connected with the fans, who often sat bored during his matches and promos. His 2011 Rumble win was no different, as most reacted to his victory with a mix of indifference and annoyance.
SHEAMUS’ 2012 WIN WAS NO BETTER. The hottest thing going at the time was Chris Jericho, who had just returned a few weeks prior, with a light up jacket and wordless promos that drove fans crazy. He entered the Royal Rumble as one of the most hated superstars, all without uttering more than one sentence on the mic since his return. It seemed clear he was on his way to a WrestleMania title match with the other hottest thing going, WWE Champion CM Punk. And sure enough, they would have their match, but Jericho didn’t win the Rumble. Sheamus did. It was the most wet-fart victory the match has ever seen, as Vince seemed to throw the whole match to the dogs just to swerve fans who were sure Jericho was going to win (silly us for being logical).
ROMAN REIGNS VICTORY WAS A DUD BEFORE IT EVEN HAPPENED. After a year of being pushed more and more down fans’ throats, Reigns entered the 2015 Rumble as the most hated babyface since WCW Hulk Hogan, circa 1995. For the second year in a row fans wanted Daniel Bryan to win and for the second year in a row Vince went with the polar opposite. The sight of a confused Rock hoisting his cousin’s hand amidst a chorus of boos is one of the indelible images of the modern era.
TRIPLE H WON HIS SECOND ROYAL RUMBLE IN 2016, in a match where the WWE Championship was on the line. That’s just one sliver of the overbooked mess that was that year’s Road to WrestleMania. Fans weren’t apoplectic at Triple H’s win, not the way they were about Reigns’ a year before, but they were something worse: Indifferent. That’s how you can describe the entire Reigns vs Triple H feud, and main-event match at WrestleMania 32. It was an opportunity to do the wave and there’s no more damning thing a fanbase can do than that.
THE “STAR-IS-BORN” WINNERS
In the whole history of the event, you can point to four times where the Rumble was actually the launching pad for superstardom. Yes there are those other times where the right guy won (Hart, Austin, Rock) but in terms of the right guy winning and turning that win into a main-event career, it’s only happened a small number of times…
SHAWN MICHAELS 1996 WIN WAS EVERYTHING HIS 1995 WIN WAS NOT. He won it as a babyface, first of all. For another thing, there was more company-wide momentum heading into Mania 12 than there had been a year earlier. Fans were also more ready to accept HBK as a main-eventer than they had been. The Vince McMahon promotional machine was behind him whole-heartedly too, and this Rumble win led to the “boyhood dream” storyline that culminated in the IRONMAN match with Bret Hart and his first world championship. After that, the rest is history.
STEVE AUSTIN’S 1998 WIN WAS EVERYTHING HIS 1997 WIN WAS NOT. He won it as the undisputed top star in the company for one thing. For another thing, there was more company-wide momentum heading into Mania 14 than there had been a year earlier. That’s where the deja vu ends, however. Fans had been on Austin’s bandwagon ever since WrestleMania 13 and Vince knew there was big money to be made with the Texas Rattlesnake as his top star. The Royal Rumble is at its best when it is won by the guy everyone can see is the next big thing on his way to his coronation at WrestleMania. That happened best right here.
BROCK LESNAR’S 2003 WIN WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A VICTORY EN ROUTE TO A CORONATION but the fact that he left the company a year later hurts it in hindsight. In the moment, however, this was a great use of the Royal Rumble. Lesnar had already been champion, of course, but his reign had been as a heel. He entered this Rumble as a babyface with the expectation that he would carry Smackdown for the next decade. His win launched him into a feud with his arch-nemesis Kurt Angle, which culminated in a classic WrestleMania main-event. History hasn’t been kind to it, but at the time this was the Rumble done right.
BATISTA’s FIRST RUMBLE WIN, WAY BACK IN 2005, WAS THE LAST TIME THE EVENT WAS USED TO CREATE A NEW MAIN-EVENTER. As with Lesnar, hindsight has not been so kind to it; John Cena was the runner-up in this Rumble, but within a year he would be the biggest superstar in the world and Batista would be a distant runner-up. At the time, however, Batista looked like he would be the next great main-eventer. His win took him to a feud with the then-unbeatable Triple H, where he won the title in WrestleMania 21’s main-event, and then—improbably—beat Triple H clean two more times to win the feud and become a “made” man. It’s been over a decade, but this was the last time the Rumble was used as such a catalyst.
There have been twenty-nine Royal Rumble matches, but of those only a handful (maybe a third) can been said to really accomplish the established goal of the event: to be the launching pad for a superstars ascent to WrestleMania (and beyond) main-event superstardom. Fans don’t expect a star-making victory every year, since there’s no need to crown a new top star every year. In the end fans just want a few simple things from their Rumble matches: (1) fun and surprising entrants, (2) a nice inter-mingling of feuds, (3) storyline starts and progressions, (4) no downtime, (5) a logical finish.
Only a few Rumbles have managed to hit all five points, but the ones that do are the ones fans look back on fondly.
The rest…are just a whole lotta nothin.